By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Refugees, fleeing violence, looking for a safe place to live and love in a hostile world: it’s one of the powerful narrative currents of our time.
And here’s the uncanny perpetual timeliness of the original klezmer rock concert/theatre hybrid that arrives in the Citadel Club Wednesday, fresh from a critically acclaimed two-month run in New York. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is inspired by the story of Canadian star playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s Jewish-Romanian great-grandparents, refugees from the violence and ethnic hatred of the Old World who landed at Halifax’s Pier 21 — Canada’s Ellis Island — over a century ago. It’s 1908, and it’s naturally, organically, tuned to a contemporary frequency.
En route to Edmonton this past weekend, Christian Barry, the director and co-creator of Old Stock (along with musician/ performer Ben Caplan and Barry’s wife Moscovitch), is musing on the reverb of the musical across the border in Trumpian America — and its origins in this country. You can thank Stephen Harper, the ex-Canuck PM for the title. Take your mind back to the 2015 election campaign, the issue of health care for refugees, and the distinction Harper drew between “old stock” Canadians and newcomers, this in a country of immigrants. “To me it’s just so absurd that he got away with that,” says the engagingly articulate Barry. “ Where was he drawing that line between ‘new’ immigrants and ‘old’?”
“It’s so self-evident, so divisive. But I’m always careful not to over-emphasize the political, because in truth we’re not trying to talk about quotas or numbers or policies. We’re talking about putting a human face to the refugee story. So that when people engage with the subject, they see the hopes and dreams and human ambitions, not the numbers and headlines….”
The wall-builders of the world are all about dehumanizing the excluded; Old Stock is all about their human faces. “Yes, it’s political,” says Barry. “But it’s deeply human at heart — a true story of two people looking for a safe place to fall in love and raise a family.”
By the time of Harper’s infamous political tactic, Barry, artistic director of 2b theatre company (based in Halifax where he and Moscovitch live) and composer/musician Caplan were in joint-creation mode. “We were working on something — before we knew what our story was.” Barry laughs.
“It was our first collaboration,” he says. “I was a fan of Ben Caplan’s music, and I’d seen him perform live, and thought ‘this is a theatrical animal, who has something to bring to a theatrical context’. So I reached out.”
Their collaboration has its own kooky geometry. In the “funny cross-pollination of our pasts,” as Barry puts it, “Ben had gone to university in Halifax thinking he might major in theatre. And he switched over and became a musician. Whereas I’d gone to theatre school thinking I might be a musician, and then bit by bit I found myself migrating into theatre.”
“Which might be why I always gravitate to working with musicians. There’s some part of me that’s a stunted unfulfilled musician,” says Barry, whose theatrical aesthetic almost always involves music. Opera training didn’t do it for him. “Very technical. Nothing challenging or idea-based. Whereas all my theatre courses were all these interesting, dirty, complicated debates and discussions; I felt so much more inspired by them!”
Barry is not one of those theatre artists who tear themselves grudgingly away from the stage in order to direct. “Even before I graduated, I was conscious that I was probably a director,” he says. “I was directing my classmates…. I wasn’t really a participant in my own body; I was always outside my body thinking about the bigger picture, engagement with the audience, design. Thinking about all these things you’re not supposed to be thinking about as an actor in a scene with someone.”
Feeling the ancient Jewish vibe in Caplan’s music, the pair immersed themselves in Jewish folk tales, hunting down source material. Says Barry, “if I were psycho-analyzing myself retrospectively (laughter), it wasn’t coincidental that I was about to have a Jewish son (Elijah, now 2 1/2), and was thinking about what that lineage means, where it came from, its place in Canada.”
For Caplan and Barry, the international refugee crisis was at the forefront of their thinking; they were haunted by indelible images like the photo of the little boy washed up onto a Turkish beach. Coincidentally, Moscovitch, an indefatigable researcher (witness the complexities in Infinity, for example, recently closed at Theatre Network), took Elijah and his great-aunt to Pier 21. In the archive she found the immigration records of her ancestors, Chaim and Chaya, including vivid particulars like where their son was bar-mitzvahed in Montreal. And Old Stock found its story.
“We wanted to tell a story that had contemporary relevance. But we didn’t want to appropriate a culture that wasn’t our own,” Barry says. “This was the closest to Ben, to Hannah, to my son. It was the obvious thing to do!”
Chaim had fled pogroms, they discovered. But, says Barry, “there was a dark spot in his past; he’d never talked to his (descendants) about what happened.” That sort of detail came from “gruesome research,” as he puts it, “and “imagining how horrible it might have been in war-torn Romania….”
In the end, the gaps in historical detail proved “an opportunity to universalize the particular and engage more broadly with what happened historically.” The violent anti-semitism of the period when the Jewish refugees were arriving in Canada makes it “a parallel of sorts to the Syrian exodus … and the Islamophobia and xenophobia we see today.”
Do the songs he and Caplan created together tell the story? “Short answer, no,” says Barry, who calls Old Stock “a hybrid, that doesn’t really live, breathe or move like most musical theatre; it’s more a mash-up between a rock concert and a play.”
“The structure has similarities to Cabaret where “the songs exist in their own space and time, the here and now in the room. And then there are flashbacks.”
The prevailing image, Barry says, is borrowed from “the ancient travelling storytelling tradition … a band of troubadours (led by Caplan) who come into town in their shipping container” and return to it when they’ve finished. Inside the container are all the props and instruments, everything the cast needs to tell the story. “Everyone in the show is a bit of a polyglot,” says Barry. “The actors play the instruments…. Music and theatre spill over into each other. There’s always something happening musically under the scenes!”
Caplan, who “returns to his gigging rock-and-roll life” between shows, has lately been touring with Old Stock songs. The official release of that album is in June; meanwhile you can get an advance copy at performances 0f the show.
Old Stock arrives packing six of New York theatre’s coveted Drama Desk nominations, including outstanding book (Moscovitch), outstanding music (Barry and Caplan) outstanding director (Barry), and outstanding musical. There’s a certain inadvertent and heartwarming hilarity in the way that last nod puts the highly original Canadian creation in a category alongside big Broadway blockbusters SpongeBob SquarePants and Mean Girls.
Next Monday, the day after the show closes here, Barry and the cast are off to Bristol, England. “We’re booking two years out,” he says of dates around the world, across Canada and America, the U.K., the Netherlands, Australia, Asia…. The proliferation is extraordinary for a show that premiered in Halifax exactly a year ago, then scooped up a Fringe First in Edinburgh last summer.
“It’s a remarkably fast trajectory!” says Barry. “Normally when 2b premieres a new show it’s a least a year before its touring life starts. The fast track to the international circuit is partly because its subject matter is so timely.”
So Old Stock, like its wandering troubadour characters, will continue to live on the road. “I can’t decide if it’s a case of life imitating art or art imitating life.”
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
Theatre: 2b theatre company at the Citadel
Created by: Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry, Ben Caplan
Directed by: Christian Barry
Starring: Ben Caplan, Mary Fay Coady, Dani Oore, Graham Scott, Jamie Kronick
Where: Citadel Club
Running: through Sunday
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com